Activism

I spent a night with activists plastering over adverts demanding a general election

Here’s a beat-by-beat timeline of what it was like to go along with the flyposting activists calling for climate action and a #GeneralElectionNow

Journalist Eliza Pitkin stands next to General Election Now poster

Big Issue reporter Eliza Pitkin spends a night with a group of anonymous protestors defacing billboards to inspire a general election

“We have a ‘let them eat cake’ prime minister, and I don’t think people will stand for it,” I’m told. I’m standing in a community hub in East London, filled with craft-ivists fiercely blow-drying wet paint on the posters laid out on the floor and stencilling final letters into place. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling and endless human rights stickers furnish the walls of the “anarchist space”. It’s roughly 11pm on a Thursday night.

“It’s ridiculous that we have an unelected prime minister who is richer than our monarch, who is that out of touch with the everyday person that his family’s wealth supersedes most people in the UK, and at a time in which people who were previously not poor can’t afford to feed their families or heat their homes. People won’t stand for it,” the volunteer tells me. 

The activists have spent recent weeks replacing street advertising around London with their own messages, subverting corporate messages with urgent demands.

“We hope that our few posters calling for a general election are part of the trigger point that will cause people to get out in the streets and demand it,” they add while typing up a press release.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say our Cabinet office has become more like a busy commuter bus this year, one person leaves, another arrives, then dozens come and go all at once. Which makes it apt that these posters are plastered at bus stops across the capital.

Activists hope the posters will serve as a trigger point to encourage “people to get out in the streets and demand” a general election.

I should preface this by saying: fly-posting like this is illegal, and anyone caught can expect a hefty fine. But a general election is well supported. Successive polls show the British public are overwhelmingly in favour of holding a general election soon. Two-thirds of people, according to YouGov, and nearly 75 per cent according to Omnisis. 

#GeneralElectionNow has trended on social media, and even MP Zac Goldsmith, once the great hope of the Conservative party, has said a general election is “morally unavoidable.” Labour leader Keir Starmer, of course, has said “the British people deserve so much better than this revolving door of chaos. We need a general election now.”

If the latest surveys of voting intention are to be believed, a general election would be a disaster for the Conservatives. Labour are polling at 52 per cent compared to the Conservatives’ 23 per cent, the biggest gap in 25 years.

But it’s not just a general election the activists are calling for. They’re also keen to bring attention to the huge profits of oil companies in the middle of an energy crisis. Shell reported profits of £31bn over the last 12 months, just as families struggle to pay their heating bills.  

So as we settle into our first week of Rishi Sunak, the group is hitting the streets again. This time I’m coming with them. 

7:57 PM – I receive a text from one of the organisers. “Would 21:15 work?” Truthfully, I was already like a kid on the first day of school: My backpack was packed, my belly was full, I was tossing back an espresso and wondering if I was wearing one too many layers. 

9:15 PM –  Perfectly on time. I wait outside the station looking eagerly around for a sign of Doc Martens, rolls of paper or waving arms. London’s Underground is an oven on the best of winter days, so I already know I’m wearing too many layers.

A group of focussed, smiley activists in comfy clothing and covid masks catch my eye. We spot each other immediately and after a few meet and greets they begin to cover their jumpers with high-vis jackets. One member told me: “you can feel a bit more confident if you’re wearing high-vis. You look like you’re meant to be there.”

9:32 PM – We arrive at the first bus stop. One activist pulls out an Allen key to unlock the billboard frame, another starts to unravel tape, cutting three-inch pieces with scissors. The third gets on their knees, crawling their fingers under the board ready to lift it off the glass. Within seconds, a poster for Lenor fabric softener falls and is sharply replaced with General Election Now. Bang, the board is down, locked in and the group departs.

As we march to the next stop they tell me: “Our public spaces are effectively controlled by people with the most money, which means everything we see around us, as you go outside, is fed to us according to what the the most powerful and wealthiest people want us to see, which is not what is actually best for us or the planet.”

They continue: “We need to reclaim public space with messages that will fight back against the billionaire corporations.”

09:35 PM – There’s a lot of walking. Turns out not every bus billboard can be manipulated with a little Allen key. One activist navigates the group through a map app “other activists have made” that shows stars for bus stops they can unlock. 

The activists use a map app “other activists have made” that shows stars for bus stops they can unlock. 

09:41 PM – The next bus stop is chosen. This time it’s Standard Life and an advert for pensions is replaced with a brightly-coloured general election poster. 

09:44 PM – Another. As the glass board is lifted, they notice it’s an ad encouraging women to have breast screenings to prevent cancer. Abort plan. They recover the poster, lock it up and move onto the next one. 

“We only leave up ones that are evidently excellent causes or charities that we feel bad for taking down. But most are fair game.”

09:47 PM – Two posters replace ads for fintech company Revolut and another for bacon, which now read: “Join Us, Demand Elections” and “General Election Now.” One homemade, the other well-printed and minimal. Both eye-catching. 

One car driving past shouts what sounds like indecipherable abuse. “That’s never happened before!” says one of the group.

“It’s ridiculous that we have an unelected prime minister who is richer than our monarch, who is that out of touch with the everyday person that his family’s wealth supersedes most people in the UK”.

09:56 PM – The next general election poster is up. The busy road is now sprinkled with anti-Tory messaging. So let’s get into it. Why a general election? 

One ad blocker responds: “They’ve got no mandate to govern, they’ve not been elected by the voters or even, in this case, by the members of their party. They’ve literally been elected by 202-odd MPs. That’s not democratic.”

One of the activists, who gives their name as Pigeon, says: “We have an extremist, right-wing government, which is in the pocket of lobbyists and far-right think tanks, and they are pushing ahead with their agenda. Covid, the climate crisis, racism, cost of living and so many other things, have quite profoundly changed the digital landscape but the Tories have managed to cling on.” 

Successive polls show the British public are overwhelmingly in favour of holding a general election soon.

2022 has arguably been the year that the Conservative Party ran out of road. Boris Johnson was always hailed as a winner and despite his lies and scandals he was generally liked by swing voters who decide elections. Late or wrong decisions caused thousands of deaths through Covid lockdowns while he and his colleagues partied in Downing Street. 

After he was ousted by his own MPs, the Conservatives spent a summer ignoring the cost of living crisis while deciding whether Sunak or the disastrous Liz Truss would lead the country to economic safety. Truss crashed the collective car almost as soon as she got in it, and she was in the job for less time than she had campaigned for it.

For many young people — and, it seems, even some Conservatives — the party has lost their mandate to govern.

The last poster is folded up and put away as the new poster takes its place

10:11 PM – As the night gets darker, onlookers turn from after-work socials and date nights to disorientated drunks, curious convenience store staff and taxi drivers watching us, stopped at traffic lights. 

10: 32 PM – A handful of posters later, supplies have run dry. Back to headquarters. 

Craft-tivists fiercely blow-drying wet paint on the posters laid out on the floor and stencilling final letters into place

10:52 PM: I get a chance to take off my one-too-many layers and sit down with a few members willing to speak to me. I have questions. Why are adverts your form of attack?

“Ads are sadly a big part of our media,” says one. “We are bathing in the soup of advertising.”

Another chips in: “Adverts aren’t just about the product, it’s about brand recognition. It’s about making people associate certain brands with certain things, which is why greenwashing is so dangerous, because a company like an airline, or an oil company, or a car company, will post an ad about, ‘building a better, fairer world’. What they don’t want you to think is actually ‘we’re destroying the planet’.”

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An onlooker sarcastically says, “General Election? Good luck with that”

11:11 PM – We head out for the final posters to be put up. This time, two men stop to watch as the activists pin one up. They read it aloud, sarcastically. “General Election? Good luck with that.” 

The activist responded: “We totally get that cynicism, we’re cynical too. They don’t believe we’re going to get a general election because our system is so corrupt and unfair, which we fully agree with.

“But this postering is us trying to take a first step into galvanising people into realising that they can come together and take action.”

11:18 PM – We hear sirens. There’s a notable rush between the group as they alert each other, but they don’t stop. It made me wonder, whether they fear running into the law. 

“Nobody we know of in the subvertising network has ever been prosecuted for this activity, so we see it as a very low level of damage. Generally speaking, effective forms of protest are criminalised or somehow restricted so there’s not a lot of choice. As technically illegal actions go, this is a very low risk one.”

Anyone caught fly-posting by police can expect a fixed penalty notice of £75 or more. For advertisers, the fine can be up to £2,500. Whether this group falls into the costlier second category — or whether they would be charged under it — doesn’t appear to bother them.

12:02 PM – Midnight is my cut-off point so I bid the group good night.  

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On the way home, my taxi driver started talking about how much better electric cars are for the planet, and how he has to take more shifts to keep up with bills and costs. He’s one of the growing millions of people who are having to find new ways to make ends meet. They didn’t profit from the financial crash or austerity or Brexit or the pandemic or the energy price hike or crashing the pound to give tax cuts to the rich. But they are paying for it. 

It made me think of what one of the volunteers said: “We need everyone to take part and get involved because that really can swing it. We have the agency to change things a lot but we have to actually stand up for it and for all of us to get out.”

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